“The only thing he believed in was chaos, for in chaos he saw the only small chance he had of feeling alive.”
Jack Maertens, would-be writer, sliding into middle age, lives with his patient, supportive mum in north London. Jack is stuck in a rut “trying and failing to finish a long, learned novel packed tight with the obscure literary allusions and authentic multicultural credentials that the publishers loved in those days.” Jack could have stayed spinning on his hamster wheel going nowhere for years or perhaps he would eventually have given up and crept away to find a job. But these things didn’t happen because Jack meet Neil.
Compared to my own sad, shambling existence in the shadows of lie, his was a kaleidoscope. I peeped from behind my mother’s curtains at the world outside and wrote about people like Neil.
Jack meets larger-than-life Neil in a kebab joint; they talk and spend an evening in a hashish tinged pub crawl, but it’s not a one-off. Neil enters Jack’s life and Jack’s “morose brooding […] suddenly gave way to a riotous drunken haze of colour and noise.” Soon Neil leads Jack on a wild road trip, with the two men, significantly, listening to Jack Kerouac’s On the Road while drinking and erratically driving Jack’s old Figaro up to Scotland. Opposites attract, we know that, but there’s a lot more afoot in this relationship. Jack is definitely attracted to Neil for his joie de vivre. Jack, hasn’t done
anything much in the last few years of his life, and now he acknowledges that “Neil was doing enough living for the two of us.” Neil, unemployed, unemployable and a graduate from Feltham Young Offenders Institution takes over Jack’s life. Neil leads and Jack, lost in his failed ambitions, is happy to follow along and sample life Neil-style. Plus perhaps at the bottom of this Jack imagines that he can crawl out of the deep avoidance crevice he lives in, experience life once again, and finish that book.
But then again, perhaps consorting with Neil is just a sub-category of Writer’s Block.
Part-buddy book, part road trip, part examination of the authenticity of rebellion, the desirability of a world totally void of responsibility, and part an examination of the meaning of life, On The Holloway Road, a fairly short book at around 200 pages, follows the trajectory of Jack’s relationship with Neil as Neil enters Jack’s colourless life, takes over and starts igniting, figuratively that is, fireworks. But the fireworks eventually turn to bombs.
Neil is chaos in motion; he can’t remain in one place for long; he needs action, activity. He’s manic and probably if I were a mental health professional, I’d conjure up an ICD-10 code.
Jack’s tolerance for Neil ran farther than mine, but then that’s probably because I knew a ‘Neil.’ That’s not to say that I didn’t love reading about Neil, because I did. These kamikaze people are great fun to read about–but not so much fun when they start buggering up your life. Jack’s patience runs out with Neil yet he’s still in Neil’s tail wind: first as a participant, then a spectator.
Neil stood up abruptly and went over to a young suited man who was talking particularly aggressively into his phone about meetings and sales targets. He leaned over his shoulder and mimicking a female voice, said, “Come back to bed, big boy. I want you so bad it hurts.”
The poor man covered his phone too late, grabbed his bag and ran away from Neil pouring pleading explanations into the phone as he went. That kept us entertained for a time, but Neil, I now became aware, was like a child who tires quickly of every diversion. In the drunken, loud mobs of life in the pubs of Holloway Road I had never really noticed it, but sitting there in the sober neon glare of the morning, with my brain tired and sluggish, and nothing but the inside of a service station to look at, I felt Neil to be a vortex voraciously sucking life out of those around him and still constantly needing more.
I absolutely loved this book; it’s funny yet poignant. The road trip is an adventure, and like all adventures it has its disastrous moments. Neil, much to Jack’s disgust, spews forth cheesy pick up lines that work on very young “giggling girls, barely old enough to be out of school,” intoxicated women, and a desperate lonely, abandoned wife. Jack is attracted to Neil for the way in which Neil appears to be fearless, but actually reckless is more applicable, and recklessness is wearing. There’s one moment when Jack longs for his resilient, non judgmental mother:
I felt an urge to turn around and drive back to London. I could be there by late evening, just in time to get my mother to make me a toasted sandwich before bed.
At first Neil’s behaviour seems refreshing and lots of fun until it continues … relentlessly… to the point of madness. It’s fascinating to see how Jack at first sees Neil as a Liberator (thinking Thomas Berger’s Neighbors) someone who has all the answers, but then how that gradually slips until Neil becomes this continual train wreck. What does it say about modern life when Neil–someone totally out of control–can appear as though he knows how to ‘live?’ I suppose that’s how cults start.
And here’s Emma’s review.